Warning: crazy speculation about sex and tombs.
At the east end of St Peter’s church, Plemstall, an isolated church near Mickle Trafford, Cheshire, there is a striking tomb-chest above the large Hurleston family vault. Made of ashlar bluff sandstone, by covering the vault it is marking the burial place of multiple individuals and successive generations, not serving as a grave-cover/ tomb per se.
The most striking features are the recumbent skeletons on the long south- and north-facing sides of the tomb-chest. These are right outside the east window of the church, and thus close to the church’s high altar in a prominent position for a tomb of a local landed family.
While I’m familiar with medieval and early modern wall-paintings of skeletons representing death as memento mori – as at Llangar church, and I’ve seen modest-sized skulls and crossed-bones as memento mori on 17th and 18th century monuments elsewhere (brasses, epitaphs and tomb-chests), I can’t recall encountering something akin to this tomb-chest.
What are these skeletons representing? Why are they there at all, and do they have specific meanings, or are they generic symbols of death and mortality?
The crude but ‘life-size’ (or death-size) skeletons confer symmetrical poses, with foliage at each end, containing the skeletons within coffin-like rectangular frames.
The figures both have their heads to the west, feet to the east, akin to the orientation of burial of those interred beneath and in the surrounding churchyard. As well as mirroring normative Christian west-east burial orientation, the skeletons’ flexed legged posture, rectangular frame and scale might also be taken to suggest we are dealing with a representations of cadavers decaying in tombs, thus an early modern equivalent of a late medieval transi tombs – showing the body decaying as a reflection on mortality.
But why are they posed in symmetrical but opposing fashions? The northern-facing skeleton’s left hand it raised up and holding an hour-glass, as if viewing it from within its empty sockets. The right arm crosses the body and holds an arrow, like the hour glass perhaps also denoting mortality. Notably, the arrow points at the groin, suggesting perhaps a mortal message not only about a single dead individual, but death of progeny – family and inheritance.
The south-side skeleton lacks an hour-glass. Instead, the right hand is held up in a fashion that mirrors the posture of the north-side skeleton’s left arm. This skeleton is instead holding the stem of an arrow as if stopping it from piercing the body, or pulling it out of the rib-cage from whence it would have pierced the heart and/or lungs. The skeleton on the south-side appears to hold the stem of an acanthus leaf in the left hand, which is positioned beside the right waist: the left arm having crossed the body in a fashion paralleling the north-side skeletons right arm crossing its body.
So the skeletons are in ‘conversation’ with each other, but contrasting in their postures.
There’s a further clue. The south-facing skeleton is a missing pair of ribs: it has 10, not 12. This led Pevsner to speculate as to whether the skeletons denote different sexes. Persisting the Christian myth based on the story of Adam making Eve from his spare rib, might we therefore infer that the north-side skeleton represents a woman, while the south-facing skeleton lacking a sixth pair of ribs is a male? Now I confess not knowing whether other skeletons in late 17th-century art are also afforded this sex-differentiation from each other. It comes to mind that the Llangar wall painting shows death with 7 or 8 pairs of ribs: hardly anatomically accurate! Likewise, representations at Rug Chapel show 9 or 10 pairs of ribs! So it remains possible we shouldn’t read too much into the number of ribs depicted.
If they were intended to represent individuals of opposing sex, who are they? While I lack parallels, I’d like to suggest that rather than generic memento mori or the skeletons of specific individuals of the Hurlston family, might these be representations of the bodies of Adam and Eve in death. Unlike the Llangar death figure, it is notable that rather than the ‘dart’ or ‘arrow’ of death facing outwards, the skeletons at Plemstall are (self-?)inflicted inwards upon the skeletons themselves.
I don’t have parallels to further ground this interpretation at present, but I wonder if the memento mori isn’t generic, or the skeletons don’t denote the commemorated occupants, might they symbolise Adam with an arrow piercing his heart, denoting he is recipient of mortality, and Eve with an hour-glass, while she holds an arrow which has pierced her groin.
If so, Adam is shown punished with mortality, while, Eve deploys the hour-glass to reflect on the passing of time as she continues to mourn her mortality. Indeed, might the arrow pointing at her groin denote her cursed gift of mortality to her progeny, as well as the curse of pain during childbirth, first to Cain and then to Abel.
Both are set in prominent foliage; perhaps this might allude to the Garden of Eden from when the pair were banished? Indeed, foliage surrounds the skeletons on the south and north long-faces but also at the eastern and western ends. It was commonplace in the 17th and 18th century, as in other periods before and subsequent, to denote the humility of Adam and Eve by them hiding their bodies with acanthus leaves. The fact that the south-side skeleton holds a leaf beside, not over his groin (if this is Adam) is powerful, since his decayed skeletal form no longer requires this gesture of humility.
Is it also significant that the woman (Eve?) is to the north, the man (Adam?) to the south, reflecting a long-lasting medieval association of women with the north, dark, side of the church?
Above the tomb-chest on the east end of the church is an early 18th-century tablet – the inscription now gone but recorded as memorialising Elizabeth Hurleston (c. 1727), and showing how the burial vault remained a focus of memorialisation down multiple generations of the family.
In summary, I have made a speculative interpretation of the skeletons on this fabulous tomb-chest from Plemstall. Rather than dismissing them as generic memento mori, I suggest that the two life-size skeletons foster contemplation of mortality by reflecting on the original sin and Adam and Eve’s mortal demise following expulsion from Eden. Over a collective vault of a local landed family, this might have been intended to prompt mourners and visitors to the churchyard to reflect on the first deaths in Christian history: the tombs of Adam and Eve, and the original sin and need for redemption of not only our souls, but of our ancestors and successors. As with so much associated with parish church commemoration, these vivid skeletal motifs connect faith and genealogy through social memory.
Having said all that, I’m more than happy to be corrected and entertain a more feasible interpretation. Or we could just go back to seeing these skeletons as morbid motifs of a bygone age…
Hartwell et al. 2011. Cheshire. The Buildings of England. Yale: Yale University Press.